On Thursday night, head coach P.J. Fleck will lead his team onto TCF Bank Stadium’s turf to begin his third season at the helm of Gophers football. Although many familiar faces have returned in 2019, expectations have changed.
Fans have high hopes for Minnesota after the team concluded its 2018 season by defeating Wisconsin to win back 'The Axe’ for the first time since 2003 and then routing Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. For Fleck, however, a new year means a fresh start.
“Last year to this year, there is no comparison,” Fleck told the media. “Because it’s a completely different team. There might be some similar players but it’s always different. Each year is its own entity.”
In 2018, Minnesota was the youngest team in the nation. This year’s roster once again features many underclassmen, including redshirt sophomore Tanner Morgan. Throughout the offseason, Morgan was in competition for the starting quarterback job with sophomore Zack Annexstad. Both figured to share snaps this year until Annexstad injured his foot during a practice on Aug. 2.
The offense will also return running back Mohamed Ibrahim, right tackle Daniel Faalele and receiver Rashod Bateman, who all were key contributors during their freshman seasons in 2018. However, the team’s most dangerous offensive weapon is senior Tyler Johnson, who in 2018 set a school record with 12 touchdown receptions.
“Explosive,” Johnson said of the offense’s potential in a preseason interview. “But we’ve got to pay attention to details every day, we can’t get too big headed ever.”
Further bolstering the team’s skill position depth, two redshirt senior running backs will return after injury-shortened 2018 campaigns. Despite combining for just 47 carries last year, Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith have rushed for 1,882 and 2,959 yards respectively in their careers and figure to create a dynamic backfield alongside Ibrahim and sophomore Bryce Williams.
“We’re working together,” Ibrahim told the media of the backfield. “Everybody understands that it’s going to be a tough running back room, so we’re working together as one unit and we’re going to push each other to see who comes out.”
Defensively, senior linebackers Carter Coughlin and Thomas Barber anchor the Gophers. With 9.5 sacks, Coughlin was named second team All-Big Ten in 2018 and some project him as a potential first-round NFL draft pick.
Redshirt sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. also returns after missing eight games with injuries for the second consecutive year. Despite playing only three full games, Winfield provided some of Minnesota’s most memorable highlights last year, both in the secondary and on special teams.
While the Gophers have a favorable Big Ten schedule, avoiding No. 5 Ohio State and No. 7 Michigan in conference play, they face some challenges early. Though none of their non-conference opponents are Power 5 programs, they combined for a record of 32-8 last season. Minnesota opens the season by hosting South Dakota State University on Thursday night.
“They’re very, very talented,” Fleck said of SDSU. “Their coach has been there a long time, had a lot of cultural sustainability. The expectation there is to win, they play hard against everybody.”